The Emperor in Rome in the year 380 was a man named Theodosius. Zealous for the Lord, he was known for an uncompromising stance for morality and a vigorous defense of Christian beliefs. Like many believers today, he was convinced it was his mission to oppose those who were out of line from orthodox Christian doctrine.
Theodosius issued a decree commanding everyone in the empire to believe what the Church believed. If they did not, he officially labeled them “demented and insane” and insisted that they “shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with divine judgment.”
In other words, convert to Christianity or die. God will judge you and so will I,Theodosius decreed. Seventy years prior, you could be killed for being a Christian. Now you could be killed for not being one. Theodosius drew a line in the sand and he guarded that line with unshakable determination.
In April of 390 a male charioteer in Thessalonica was arrested for a homosexual offense. There was a public outcry because this particular charioteer was skilled and exceedingly popular. Lots of folks thought he should just be left alone. What you do in your own bedroom is your own business, right?
The general populace picketed for his release. The church stood fast in the face of the outcry. Some folks didn’t consider it a big deal. Other folks thought he should be in prison the rest of his life. Those in authority–in these days, that was the Church–refused to release the celebrity simply because of his fame. The Emperor had spoken. The charioteer would remain jailed. When the uprising defiantly continued to grow, Theodosius responded with anger. His armies marched on Thessalonica in opposition of the homosexual charioteer and indiscriminately massacred 7,000 people. Protesters, bystanders, probably even a few Christians in the mix. Blood ran in the streets.
Most people I know in the church today would not condone the actions of the Emperor. However, many of us miss the underlying philosophy that fueled his rage. Indeed, many of us practice that same philosophy, though less violently Church historian Bruce Shelley exposes the flaw in the Emperor’s thinking, and convicts me that I may sometimes be just as off base in my thinking as Theo was in his:
“Theodosius takes for granted the close link between his own will and God’s. It was a connection implicit in the Christian empire.”
I think it might be a connection implicit in modern American Christianity, too.
The particular controversy is of no relevance here; Christians like me never lack things to stand up for (or against). Our culture is deprived of a certain moral quality in various ways. Many sincere Christ-followers take it as their most important Kingdom contribution to stand up for what they believe in. But I’ve been wondering something a lot lately:
Is it possible that we can stand for the right things but stand with the wrong posture?
Lest I enflame a mob of my own, let me quickly state that I’m not suggesting that anyone was in favor of “unsheathing the sword” on those with whom they disagreed during any of the more modern controversies like they did during our ancient ones. However, there is a key similarity we would be wise to note (and subsequently avoid).
Theodosius’ misstep was that he considered it his responsibility to act for the Lord. If he didn’t, who would? He was the Emperor, after all. Part of his responsibility was to protect the Church. By this time in the Church’s history, where the empire ended and the church began was hard to distinguish. If anyone ever had the right to act on God’s behalf, it was someone in his position.
The modern American Christian struggles to know if and how to act on behalf of the Lord. We don’t want to lack the conviction to stand when necessary, yet we certainly do not want to take the overzealous position of Theodosius and end up with blood on our hands. I haven’t heard anyone advocating for a new batch of crusades against the bad guys, whoever the bad guys of the moment are. What I do sometimes sense is the notion that we as mere mortals have earned the right somehow to fight Jesus’ battles on His behalf.
I am making a controversial distinction here, and if you miss it you miss my entire point:
There is a huge difference between how most stand up for what they believe in and how most stand up for Jesus. The former is characterized these days by active protests, opinionated blog posts (the irony is not lost on me), and vocal opposition resembling a verbal riot. In the latter, lack of participation in a given lifestyle or activity may serve as protest enough (see Joseph, Daniel, etc.). It seems that a Godly lifestyle, not calling out the void of one in others, has always been the most effective form of persuasion. It has been true in every era of church history and it remains true today–a subversive revolution rooted in obedience to Christ goes further to change societies than a loud outcry does every single time.
I can’t tell anyone how to vote, when or when not to protest, or what opinion to hold. I don’t aspire to that role. As a Christian in America, however, I do think I can lovingly caution the entire landscape of our faith community. We need to be diligent to discern the difference between doing the socially acceptable Christian sub-culture thing from doing the radically different, never hateful, Jesus-y thing. Unfortunately, they aren’t always the same.Theodosius life is proof of that fact.
After he sent the army to stamp out the opposition, the Emperor had a change of heart. But by the time his messengers got to Thessalonica to tell the troops to stand down, it was already too late. Thousands of people were slain in the streets. The damage had been done.
My fear is not what many fear–that the very definition of what it means to be a Christian is being stripped away right before our eyes by a Godless society. Instead, my fear is that we will look back in a decade or two and see that we stood for the right things, but with the wrong posture. In retrospect, we may find that we had won many battles.
But dear friends, we will have lost the war.
A man who walked out of his own grave can do more invisibly than we’ll ever do wielding a picket sign or a piece of legislation. Jesus does not need us to defend Him, He needs us to live as He lived. We would all do well to embrace the truth Theodosius learned all too tragically: When we value our values more than we value Christ, that’s bad–even if our values are good.